Note: With all of the controversy going on over Quaker Oats’ decision to change the iconic Aunt Jemima brand, I thought I would reprint this blog post about the real Aunt Jemima.
We’ve all sat down to a breakfast of pancakes and Aunt Jemima syrup at one time or another. While munching away, did you ever look at the picture of the large African American woman on the label and wonder if she was real? You may be surprised to learn that several women portrayed the pancake princess over the years.
Wikipedia says that the inspiration for Aunt Jemima was an old minstrel show song called Old Aunt Jemima and that the Aunt Jemima character was prominent in minstrel and vaudeville shows in the late 19th century. Some accounts claim that the character was actually a white actor in blackface, who may have been a German immigrant.
In 1890, the R. T. Davis Milling Company, which produced Aunt Jemima pancake mix, hired a former slave named Nancy Green to be their spokesperson. Until her death in 1923, Green represented the company, including appearing at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893.
The Quaker Oats Company acquired the Aunt Jemima brand in 1926, and in 1933 hired Anna Robinson, reported to weigh 350 pounds, to play Aunt Jemima as part of their promotion at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.
She was replaced by Anna Short Harrington in 1935, who played Aunt Jemima for fourteen years. Born in North Carolina in 1897, Harrington supported five children and was able to buy her family a large house with her earnings.
Over the years several other women played the role of pancake icon and things get cloudy trying to identify who they were and when. Rosie Moore was the last woman to represent the character Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company, touring the country as a company spokesperson until the late 1960s. Her headstone at the Hammond Colony Cemetery in Robertson County, Texas, said she played Aunt Jemima for 25 years.
In the Red Oak Presbyterian Church Cemetery a few miles north of Ripley, Ohio, we found the grave of yet another Aunt Jemima. According to her gravestone, Rosa Washington Riles was the third Aunt Jemima employed by Quaker Oats, recruited in the 1930s and touring until 1948. Though I couldn’t find any official documentation by the company of her employment, at least one website said she was employed as a cook in the home of a Quaker Oats executive named Mills and went out for pancake demonstrations at her employer’s request.
While many women played the character, a lot of black women felt that the portrayal of a slave-era “mammy” was offensive and hurt the image of African American women. The term “Aunt Jemima” became slang to describe a female version of the offensive label “Uncle Tom.” Current Aunt Jemima products depict a slender, more modern woman with a stylish hairdo.
To me, it doesn’t matter who the “real” Aunt Jemima was, as long as my pancakes are covered with lots of her sweet syrup.
Be sure to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an autographed copy of Big Lake Blizzard, the fourth book in my Big Lake series. This copy has the original cover, before I commissioned Elizabeth Mackey to design all of my book covers. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – Being loved and loving someone doesn’t make you happy but it certainly makes it an option.